These Feet Were Made for Workin': Inside Chicago's Explosive Footwork Scene

From local dance battles to YouTube ubiquity, Chicago footwork's enigmatic allure has has club aesthetes and bedroom upstarts falling all over themselves

DJ Manny / Photo by Ashes57
DJ Manny / Photo by Ashes57
WRITTEN BY
Dave Quam

Sometimes dance music needs a push. And for an increasing number of artists and fans from the late 2000s forward, the once-insular sound and competitive dance culture of Chicago's "footwork" scene has provided not only that push, but has shoved many more familiar dance genres right off a cliff.

Since the first tracks tagged as footwork appeared in the late 1990s, their roaring sub-bass, minced-vocal samples, and knifelike claps (at a fitful 160 beats per minute) have been heard, almost exclusively, pouring out of roller rinks and school gyms in the Windy City's predominately black neighborhoods on the South and West sides. But thanks to viral dance videos and subsequent international label interest, footwork tracks have been heard at mega-clubs such as London's Fabric, or even on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

Even though few people outside of Chicago have heard footwork firsthand at one of the numerous weekly dance battles, the music's fractured, frenetic energy, raw experimentation, and anxious melancholy have reminded many of the generation-defining, early-'90s U.K. jungle scene. And as the music has filtered back and forth across the Atlantic (and the Internet), it's been hybridized, modified, and refurbished by artists all over the world. But its heart and soul still reside in Chicago, where the scene is as vibrant as ever. (For example, Da Mind of Traxman, the recent album by footwork and '90s ghetto-house vet Cornelius "Traxman" Ferguson, released on tastemaking U.K. label Planet Mu, is a thrilling glimpse at both the sound's kinetic possibilities and its soulful, housey roots.)

It's a testament to the music's originality (and eternal strangeness) that it continues to mesmerize new listeners; in many cases, simply because they can't figure out what it is. "Shit looked and sounded alien to me," says U.K. artist Antony Williams, a.k.a. Addison Groove, when he discovered footwork via YouTube in 2008, being instantly drawn to the music of DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, and the manic dance battles, with their intricate routines performed almost completely below the waist. "I felt I needed to tell the world about this movement," says Williams, who at the time was a dubstep DJ performing under the moniker Headhunter. In 2010, he released "Footcrab," his own meticulously rendered, cheeky tweak of the sound, which became a crossover hit in London, helping to ready European dance floors for footwork's unusual "new" sound.

This whole mess started back in the mid-'80s, when Chicago house music was still just a baby. Competitive dance crews flaunted their talents at parties, and the House-O-Matics, founded in 1985 by Ronnie Sloan, were the most feared; in fact, many of the DJs who pioneered footwork cut their teeth as dancers with House-O-Matics, including DJ Deeon, RP Boo, and DJ Rashad (still a key player with his group Ghettoteknitianz and label Lit City). Neither the music nor the early battles were as intensely elaborate as what would come later, but in the video for Tyree Cooper's 1989 hip-house classic "Turn Up the Bass," two dancers briefly "dribble" their feet (a shuffling movement that starts most footwork moves). It was a crucial first step.

By the '90s, traditional house music had become too slick for residents of Chicago's notorious housing projects and poorer, mainly African-American neighborhoods; many of the seminal DJs even moved on to fancier clubs on the north side or toured European cities where they felt more appreciated. But those remaining on the South and West sides devised their own new sound — "ghetto house." Still using four-on-the-floor bass lines, DJ Deeon, DJ Milton, DJ Funk, and others, added raw vocal chants and local slang, sped up the tempos to 140 bpm, and tailor-made it for the hood. The era's key label, Dance Mania, distributed multicolored cassette mixtapes (called "colored tapes") to corner stores all over the city, as well as proper record shops like Barney's Records & Tapes (run by Dance Mania's Ray Barney). These colored tapes showcased kinkier bedroom-studio sounds and re-energized the local scene, laying the foundation for a new generation.

The terminology got complicated when the word juke — common slang for a party that's off the hook — became associated with an even faster version of ghetto house in the late '90s. As Dance Mania artists DJ Puncho, Gant Man, and DJ Greedy focused on making juke tracks for people to simply grind at the club, serious battle dancers leaned toward a more abstract sound conceptualized by RP Boo, DJ Rashad, and DJ Spinn. A deconstructed version of juke, with spellbinding call-and-response vocal loops, primordial synth spasms, and syncopated bass and drum-machine patterns, it inspired newly founded dance crews (Wolf Pac, the Dungeon, Gutter Thugs) to develop moves based on the tracks' minimal, off-kilter programming. Late '90s standouts like RP Boo's "Baby Come On" (with its hypnotic loop of Ol' Dirty Bastard's voice over skewed, claustrophobic percussion), Waxmaster's "Footwork," and Rashad's "Child Abuse" established footwork as a truly avant-garde dance music, with dancers and producers pushing each other to be more inventive.

When Dance Mania shut its doors in 2001 due to tax problems and sketchy business practices, some artists took a hiatus or struggled to release their music. But the scene never stopped, and when videos of kids precisely shaking their feet at each other began popping up on YouTube, an international audience became obsessed with the dancers and accompanying music. Juke was pushing its crowd-pleasing to delirious levels, culminating in the 2007 track "Watch My Feet" by Dude 'n Nem (which scratched the Billboard R&B chart), while footwork, driven by DJ Spinn, DJ Rashad, DJ Roc, and younger producers like DJ Nate and DJ Elmoe, pursued its own passionately experimental, internal muse, further amplified by social media.

When Addison Groove's Antony Williams was seeking out tracks by Rashad and Spinn in 2008, they'd just begun releasing EPs on the digital imprint Juke Trax, run by DJ Godfather, a central figure in the '90s crossover of Detroit's electro and ghetto-tech scenes. The music was moving into a position to break out, but at first footwork was an awkward fit for Williams. "I would slip it in at the start of my Headhunter sets, and no one would be reacting," he remembers.

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